Warner Bros. Discovery needed The Flash to be a box office success, but on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse beat it. The animated sequel from Sony Pictures is in its third week of release, compared to The Flash still in its first. Yet, the Miles Morales film is also doing better than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, nearing the end of its theatrical window. Because it’s box office profit, not grosses, that makes Across the Spider-Verse the big winner so far in Summer 2023.
Studios try to keep the budgets of their big blockbusters secret, though reported figures make their way to the public. Still, both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Across the Spider-Verse should be into profit territory by now. Dwayne Johnson infamously shared these normally private details with the press to make his argument that Black Adam would be profitable once home viewing sales were considered. It’s also possible that the film and Shazam!: Fury of the Gods also moved some merchandise, from licensed clothing to toys and collectibles. Still, the mark of a movie’s success is profit at the theater. Across the Spider-Verse is likely more profitable for Sony Pictures than Guardians Vol. 3 because it costs significantly less to make the animated movie. There is a lesson here for studios going forward about both animation and live-action blockbusters.
The Budgets for Marvel, DC Studios and Franchise Blockbusters Are Out of Control
Despite a steadily declining daily box office, The Flash’s first week brought in $140 million worldwide. Not that long ago, this would be a record-breaking number. The 2010s, largely driven by Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal, were a period of record-shattering growth in both individual and total global box offices. The Flash and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 have reported budgets well over $200 million. Across the Spider-Verse, however, has a reported budget of “just” $90 million. There are also marketing costs, with the industry standard currently equal to the film’s budget, capped at $100 million. Similarly, the studios split the box office gross with theaters, getting much less than 50 percent from international box offices and, at least to start, slightly over 50 percent domestically.
Again, the specific details aren’t reported by the studios themselves, but box office receipts are public. YouTuber Dan Murrell calculated a “rough idea for how these movies might stand” regarding profitability based on box offices. He believes Across the Spider-Verse has made more than $38 million in profit for Sony, while Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is creeping up on just $15 million in profit for Disney. This is despite Guardians’ worldwide gross being $325 million higher than Miles Morales and all his Spider-Man friends. Studios have to get their budgets under control, and it could make the movie better.
Animation is cheaper to make than live action with realistic CGI visual effects, but it’s not “easier.” Thousands of artists’ work went into making Across the Spider-Verse a gorgeous piece of art. Of course, no one, not James Gunn, Andy Muschietti or anyone else, sets out to make a “bad movie.” But starting out needing a $700 million worldwide gross to break even is a losing proposition. Sure, studios should make more all-ages animated features, but they should also reign in live-action budgets. Each successive superhero movie does not need to out-spectacle its predecessor.
Across the Spider-Verse Turned a Profit Because It Tells a Great Story
Across the Spider-Verse is unquestionably half a story. Yet, even for a “part one,” it delivers a satisfying experience both visually and emotionally. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is one of the top-five highest-grossing films of 2023, but with a $200 million budget, it almost certainly didn’t break even. The days of a Marvel or DC film earning $600 million globally with no sweat are over, for now. But what Ant-Man 3 and The Flash have in common that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 doesn’t is a big, CGI-filled third-act battle. Audiences don’t have superhero fatigue — they just want their cartoons to look like cartoons and live-action to look like real life. This is great news because real life is cheaper than wall-to-wall CGI visual effects, no matter how well done.
This is an industry-wide problem. Murrell estimates that despite a $695 million box office gross, Fast X is still $165 million away from profitability. Across the Spider-Verse had the budgetary benefit of being animated but also benefited from a well-told story. It was as high-concept as The Flash or Quantumania, but the relationships, emotional arcs and action were character-driven. The planned opening of Star Trek VI was cut for budgetary reasons, and it saved one of the franchise’s best films. Sometimes, budgetary limitations can make a movie better. Studios can’t start short-changing filmmakers or writers if they want great films. Yet, astronomical budgets just put the movie in a hole that audiences dealing with inflation can’t dig them out of.
Across the Spider-Verse and The Flash are currently in theaters.